Saturday, February 2, 2008

Virginia Woolf: Exploring Lesbianism

The typical tone of the early 20th century literature is apparent in the virtual disparity between women and popular literature. An authentic woman's voice was a faint if at all audible contingent within what preceded modernist authors. Even rarer were the voices of women who spoke against the normative restraints of their culture. Virginia Woolf offered significant contribution to this emerging literary movement, both in the areas of women writing about women and, more specifically unique to her modernist experimentalism, the exploration of female-to-female intimacy. Woolf was a trailblazer in her weaving of these themes into her work. She creates characters who represent the struggle that she and other women experienced in early 20th century Britain. Her young protagonist, Clarissa, in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf explores the social constraints that limit agency and suppress these yearnings. To the Lighthouse and her unfinished and posthumously published novel, Between the Acts, lesbian desire is squelched by popular convention and its oppressive alienation robs her heroines of the chance to possess the objects of their desires and withholds from them a social environment wherein it is plausible to assume a lesbian or woman-centered identity.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Anne Lister's Journals, Feb 8, 1821

Anne Lister was a noble Englishwoman from Halifax, West Yorkshire. She lived from 1791-1840, and is famous for having left behind her diaries describing her daily activities. These journals also describe her romantic relationships with women. Not "vaguely romantic", but clearly passionate and sexually-involved affairs that she pursued exclusively with women, throughout her life.

Anne's coded journals might have gone unexplored had not Helena Whitbread invested six years of her time carefully exploring and decoding them. Helena's book, I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840, offers the diaries as fascinating story of the "everyday" life led by an early 19th century lesbian. Engrossing reading, to say the least.

About Anne Lister, Helena says, "She became the first woman to be elected to the committee of the Halifax branch of the Literary and Philosophical Society because of her academic contributions to that society. She took an active interest in schools in the area and generally encouraged the spread of education. She managed her estates, dealt with the business of farming, and developed coal-mining on her land. Much of her working life was spent out of doors supervising workmen and, at times, tackling some of the physical tasks herself."

Anne died unexpectedly at 49, from a fever contracted while traveling through Russia.

Excerpts from 1821: Monday 29 January 1821, Halifax

Cutting curl papers half an hour ... Arranging & putting away my last year's letters. Looked over & burnt several very old ones from indifferent people ... Burnt ... Mr Montagu's farewell verses that no trace of any man's admiration may remain. It is not meet for me. I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.

Thursday 8 February 1821, Halifax

Came upstairs at 11 a.m. Spent my time from. then till 3, writing to M- very affectionately, more so than I remember to have done for long ... Wrote the following crypt, 'I can live upon hope, forget that we grow older, & love you as warmly as ever. Yes, Mary, you cannot doubt the love of one who has waited for you so long & patiently. You can give me all of happiness I care for &, prest to the heart which I believe my own, caressed & treasured there, I will indeed be constant & never, from that moment, feel a wish or thought for any other than my wife. You shall have every smile & every breath of tenderness. "One shall our union & our interests be" & every wish that love inspires & every kiss & every dear feeling of delight shall only make me more securely & entirely yours.' Then, after hoping to see her in York next winter & at Steph's before the end of the summer, I further wrote in crypt as follows, 'I do not like to be too long estranged from you sometimes, for, Mary, there is a nameless tie in that soft intercourse which blends us into one & makes me feel that you are mine. There is no feeling like it. There is no pledge which gives such sweet possession.'

Janet and I wax romantic and cuddle up sapphically, as always.